Spotlight Interview: Heather Sullivan

Heather Sullivan, TV Production Associate

Atlanta

WFU Class of 2016

Major: Communications (Media Studies Concentration)

Minor: Film, Theater & Psychology

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Heather Sullivan walks us through the opportunities, experiences, and decisions that led her to work as a TV production associate in Atlanta! The 2016 Wake grad shares her insights on networking and finding the path to your passion.

DeacLink: What did you study while at Wake?

Heather Sullivan: I majored in Communications, with a concentration in media studies, and I minored in film, theater, and psychology. I’m a 2016 Grad.

DL: How did you pick that trio of minors?

HS: I always knew I was interested in film and theater. Those were kind of the obvious. And then I took a psych elective and was obsessed with everything about it. I was like, I want to take as many of these classes as possible, so I'm just going to minor.

DL: How have you been applying for these fields? Do you mind walking me through how your career has unfolded since you graduated?

HS: So I knew I was interested in working in the creative producing side of things, so a lot of my focus and theater was more directing. I acted, but I was more focused on directing and creative world building. And film at Wake - it's a lot of criticism. So you're looking at things from the content side and less about like anything specifically technical. I didn't know how to get a job in TV without any contacts, but I knew there was work in Atlanta, so I basically moved here, took a restaurant job and just applied to any job that I could find online until I got hired.

This is how I ended up doing what I'm doing right now, which is for this company that produces two TV shows: Couples Court with the Cutlers and Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court, so it’s conflict TV. This is not what I fully expected, but it's a 10 month contract every year, which is so rare in TV and that kind of industry. It’s steady work, and I'm learning a ton. It's kind of amazing.

But when I first graduated, I worked at Wake for a year, and I worked for IPLACe, which is an interdisciplinary performing arts center. I did that for a year before I moved to Atlanta.

DL: Is that within Wake Forest?

HS: Yes, it sits within Wake. A theater director is the Director of it, and Christina Soriano is actually on the board. It was like a fellow position, but it is not as intense as a fellow position. There was a lot more freedom there.

DL: So what exactly are you doing for your TV shows?

HS: So I'm a production associate, so I'm part of a team that is booking the guests and producing them for the show. So a lot of my day to day role involves a lot of coordinating skills. So like booking travel, budgeting, talking to guests, prepping them for the show. I learned a lot of these coordinating skills when I worked at iplace for that year. And then on top of that I am talking to people, screening their stories, collecting their stories and getting them together as a possibility to be produced on the show. And then once they get here I am following them around and getting them ready to be on TV. I’m walking them through anything they need to do, including all the tests. I’m taking them to the lie detector tests and scheduling their DNA tests and different studies, stuff like that. It’s all of the prep work that goes in before the show and then day of show coordination. It's really cool as far as TV goes, because I'm doing both pre-coordinating and day-of show planning, which aren't two things that you get to typically do in the same role.

Conflict TV and talk show TV are very similar because those are things that are being produced - you're producing a lot of content. Pre-show coordination is a lot more technical and it's a lot of physical coordinating versus creative producing. So on top of doing that and learning a lot of the pre-production type stuff, I'm also learning day-of producing, which has more of the creative producing of preparing people for the actual show. That means being there, leading them along, and getting them ready for what to expect. So a lot of times like you'll have two different people in those jobs.

DL: What do you see yourself doing next?

HS: It’s interesting talking about working in reality TV because I think a lot of people see it as kind of shallow. I don't think that people will recognize a lot of the creativity that goes into it. I think this comes a little bit from my psychology minor, but I love working with real people, getting them to trust me and making them feel comfortable enough to share their personal life basically to a national audience. And so that is a lot of what a creative producer does in reality TV is it's basically befriending somebody and making them trust you enough to be their authentic selves. So that what I love about it. I'm a people person. I've always loved doing that and I get to create these relationships with people in order to create interesting TV out of real stuff and real stories. It's both challenging and super fulfilling because it's all based on your ability to connect with somebody else.

So goals for me include... I'm a Bachelor superfan and my executive producer actually used to work on The Bachelor. I would love to work in that kind of environment. With competitive or dating shows, you get several months with the same cast.  I would love to creatively produce on that. I want to be the person behind the camera talking to the person on camera. It’s pretty different than the kind of show I'm on right now where the relationship I'm building is going to last for two weeks, and they're only physically here for two days. With a show like The Bachelor for two months you're the only person these people are talking to. They don't have cell phones, but that is amazing. I love that kind of environment. It's a little bit messed up. I feel a little manipulative when I talk about it, but I just really enjoy it.

DL: How did you land your current role?

HS: Essentially a lot of online applications. I literally got my friend a job like a month after doing this job. The easiest way to get into TV in particular is networking and having a connection and basically talking to anybody looking for available PA work. But I kind of skipped that step. A lot of people start out as day players, where you're getting hired for a day or a week on a shoot that just needs people to carry equipment around or do a craft table or stuff like that. I just was really uninterested in that. I knew that was the first step that most people were doing, but I also heard from a lot of people that it's not necessarily a clear path forward. There's no ladder in TV. It’s not like “first you're a PA, and then they'll hire you as an associate producer and then they’ll hire you as this.” Instead you get a job, you hope people like you, and then you hope that you get the opportunity to improve. You can do whatever you want to do.

So I was trying to apply to stuff above my level a lot of the time. This job is a production associate, so it's still a lower level like a PA, but it's more of that creative intensity that I was looking for. I ended up applying online. I got to the interview and a lot of what I was doing for IPLACe as an Administrative Coordinator was similar to this kind of work. I focused on that in the interview and I got hired.

DL: Tell me a bit more too about your time with IPLACe.

HS: IPLACe is a center that I worked with a lot as an undergrad. I would act as a mock client for the graduate counseling students, which was really fun cause I was involving my psych and theater degree at the same time. IPLACe paid us to do this for these students, and the students got to work with life-like clients. It was great for both of us, and we were getting paid acting experience. So that was a project I was really involved with on top of a couple of my own projects. Then when I was close to graduating, the Director approached me about working as a coordinator. As the coordinator, I was pretty much the sole employee of the center other than a student assistant. So I was responsible for doing the budget. I was doing guests travel and accommodations, event planning, event coordinating, all that kind of stuff. But it was basically whatever the center needed, I had to do. And that's a lot of what working in TV is like, especially like lower level positions. It’s a lot of doing whatever your boss asks, and if you don’t know how, figure it out.

DL: How have you liked working and living in Atlanta?

HS: I love Atlanta. For years in college I was thinking “I’m going to live in New York, live that life. I'm going to try to act or maybe I'll work in PR. It’ll be great.”  And then I went on some career treks through the OPCD and I realized it might not be that feasible for me to live in New York. I didn’t have money my parents weren’t backing in any way. I had very few connections, and it's expensive. So I did some regrouping, and that's why I ended up in Winston for another year. I kind of didn't know what I wanted to do. Then I really got interested in working specifically in production, and trying to get similar level jobs there, which I couldn't do in North Carolina. But Atlanta had a ton of film and TV stuff going on. The industry was booming and it was a five hour drive from home. It was still warm, and in the south.

I had a friend who was moving at the same time, and she asked me to come to Atlanta with her. I thought it sounded great, and it’s been the best of both worlds. You get all of the big city aspects of diversity and accessibility, and there's tons of things to do, there's different sorts of people here, but then you also have southern weather and southern hospitality. I walk around New York and everyone’s frowning, whereas in Atlanta everyone's smiling, and it just feels like a happier place to live. There's more green and access to nature, and it's drivable. I mean people say that traffic is bad, but you just learn how to deal with it.  Location, as far as an apartment goes, is the number one thing in Atlanta.

From a film perspective, there may be slightly less work than LA, but there's more of a need here because not as many people are based here. You're coming to a slightly smaller market, but it's not an oversaturated market at this point. They are still building crew. That's one of the reasons I actually got hired at my job. They were sick of bringing people in from LA and New York. They were looking for local talent.

DL: So what advice do you have for students thinking about coming to Atlanta?

HS: I think my biggest advice would be to connect with people. Alums are great, but reach out to anybody. Even if they're not in the industry you're interested in, if they're living in Atlanta, they likely know somebody they can introduce you to. I think many people see someone working in marketing, and don’t want to reach out, but half the time the people in marketing are also working with TV and film people. There are those connections in places you don't expect.

The other thing is that if you have a passion for a field, just keep applying to it. There comes this kind of burnout from rejection, and especially in a field like like film and television, but really any kind of artistic field. But you never know when somebody is going to give you a chance, but they can’t give it to you unless you are constantly putting yourself out there.

DL: So what do you think Wake and/or Wake Arts could have done to better prepare you and other students for life after graduation?

HS: I think an awareness of what jobs are available to you with a liberal arts degree would have been helpful. There's not a lot of technical training at Wake, so this is just my specific field, but you're coming out with a very applicable set of skills, but a set of skills that people are not directly asking for in their job postings. So learning how to present those skills in a way, and finding your niche in a market, that would be really important.
For instance, I don't know everything there is to know about editing or post work, which is a lot of the technical stuff that goes into film. I don't know a lot of the terms I'm supposed to know when I'm on set because we didn't have those classes. It was a liberal arts film education. So when I came  here, I didn’t know those things, but what I do know is that I can problem solve anything, and it's because of my education. The question is how do you translate that? And just just because I don't know this now, doesn’t mean I won’t learn it by the end of the week. So it's really emphasizing that just because you don't have the skills posted doesn't mean that you don't have the ability to do the job.

You also need to realize that it's not going to be a set path. There’s no one entry level job that you can do to start your career.

DL: So what would you say is the best bit of advice on any topic you could give to readers?

HS: The biggest thing is to say “yes” to as many situations as possible. So if there is a random networking event, go do it. If someone from Wake hits you up about getting coffee, once again, they're not in your field, go and talk to them because you never know how these connections are going to play out in the long run.